The door to his office swung open with such force that the door knob slammed roughly against the wall with a jarring crash. Disturbed by the sudden furore, John jerked his attention from his work only to see Fran standing in the midst of the gaping void of the doorway, her face like thunder, her shoulders heaving with a fury she found impossible to conceal. Resignedly, he drew in his breath as he foretold the storm ahead.
“What can I do for you, Fran?” he questioned somewhat dispassionately, reclining back in his chair, his blue eyes steadily surveying.
“I want to talk to you,” she fired back, putting her hands on her hips, looking like some sort of fishwife about to upbraid her husband. Only he wasn’t her husband – he, it seemed, had vanished into thin air.
“Well, unless you want half the hotel to hear your business I suggest you shut the door.”
She looked as though she were about to explode, the infinite calmness of his tone only serving to escalate her agitation. She threw out her hand suddenly and, seizing the door, hurled it shut with a reverberating roar. That was just like Fran, he thought wryly as he impassively watched her march towards his desk: make lots of noise and fuss and hopefully get her own way. She had done it since she’d been a child and still hadn’t grown out of it.
He didn’t say anything. He steadfastly refused to allow himself to react, even though he viewed this unwelcome intrusion upon his time with ready chagrin. He had enough to do without having to deal with one of Fran’s tantrums. In a little under an hour he was due at Bell Associates for a meeting with Adam Bell and he was trying to finish off paying the invoices he was methodically working through before he left. Reluctantly, he put his pen down upon the blotter.
“I’m very busy, Fran,” he said with a barely repressed sigh which blatantly spoke of his ennui. “What is it you want to say?”
She tossed her curly mane back over her shoulder in an exaggerated fashion as she leaned towards him, palms gripping the edge of the desk. “What have you been saying about me?” she demanded.
“How could I say anything when I know nothing myself?”
“You must have said something, John!”
He eyed her coolly. “I have enough on my plate without ruminating about your love life. In fact I would rather not get involved at all.”
“I’m not asking you to!”
“Fran, your ability to drag everyone – whether you realise it or not – into whatever is going on in your life is second to none,” he said, his tone jaded. “It seems to me that you’d rather come home and hide with us for however long it pleases you rather than just sitting down and sorting out whatever your problems are with Steven.”
She opened her mouth in protest, ever the petulant child. At any minute he expected her to start stamping her feet at the injustice being inflicted upon her.
“I don’t do any such thing!”
“How can you be so naïve not to think that Mother would ask questions? That I’d ask questions? For heaven’s sake, Fran, no one has even seen your husband for a good few weeks and you never talk about him. What are we all supposed to think?”
“I’ll speak to him when I’m good and ready!”
“When will that be? Have you seen Steven at all since you came here?”
She was silent, guarded, refusing to look him in the eye. He got out of his chair and moved around his desk to lean against its edge beside her, crossing his arms as he did so. She half turned away from him with a scowl; biting at her thumbnail as though trying to find a way out of the hole she had dug herself.
He had to ask her. Ask her the one question that had been flitting insidiously through his mind on and off since the day he’d seen Steven. He hated himself for having to do it but he needed to know. After all, she may well drive him into a state of near continual exasperation but deep down somewhere inside him was the brother who would always seek to protect her from harm if he needed to.
“Has Steven…” he began with more gentleness than he generally used to address her, not really knowing how to phrase the words. “Has he ‘touched’ you?” The fact that he didn’t have the heart to blurt out such stark words as ‘hit’ or ‘struck’ didn’t seem to matter because the horror which surfaced all too quickly in her eyes bespoke of the fact that she knew exactly what he was hinting at.
“I don’t believe this! How can you think that? He would never do that!” She shot away from the close proximity of him as though he were some kind of poisonous snake she’d just encountered, seeking refuge by the window just behind his recently vacated chair. She looked dejected, extremely wounded by the fact that he had sought to malign Steven’s very character in such a cruel fashion. “You have no reason to think something like that! When has he ever made you think that?”
“I have my reasons,” John replied. “And you must have a good reason to abandon him.”
“I have not abandoned him!”
“What would you call it then?”
She sucked in her breath. “I don’t want to talk about it!”
She stared blindly out onto the panorama of the bustling street below. The sounds of the world that lay beyond this room drifted up to them: car engines rattling by in a steady stream, the heavy rushing of one of the few non-stopping trains as it pounded through the station, distant sirens, people shouting…the pulsating rhythm of life which was as ceaseless as the tides of the sea and went on even as their own lives tumbled into disarray.
“That’s not an answer and you know it,” John said.
“It’s the only one you’re going to get!” Fran snapped, fixing her eyes upon him briefly before virtually running from the room, very nearly sending Margaret reeling as she appeared in the doorway just at the exact moment that Fran was going out.
Margaret’s eyes followed Fran down the corridor in bewilderment, as though she wasn’t quite sure what to think.
“That was my sister,” John said, seeking to eliminate as soon as possible the fact that Margaret may have mistaken Fran for some sort of girlfriend. He made his way back around his desk to his chair, resuming his position as master of his domain.
“She looked upset.” It was a statement rather than a question.
“She’s very highly-strung, as I think I have probably told you before.” He raked his hand through his hair before resting his elbows on the desk and tiredly manipulating his forehead with his fingers in an attempt to put aside his latest run-in with Fran. He looked across at Margaret as she moved towards him, pushing the door softly closed behind her. The sight of her was like a soothing salve on his senses. She looked the very epitome of efficiency with a clutch of recently typed letters pinned to their envelopes and awaiting his signature imprisoned between her delicate fingers. During the course of the day her hair had slackened a little, a few shorter wisps now softly falling like threads of fine silk about her temples in the most engaging way. Her lipstick had all but disappeared. Noticing the faint stain still clinging there, he hungered to kiss that final trace away and taste her naked mouth with his.
“How’s your first day been?” he asked pleasantly, forcing his mind to concentrate on something other than her lips, desperately trying to dampen the ardour she aroused so readily within him.
“Bess has been very patient,” Margaret said with a reminiscent smile. “But I think it went well.” Her entire face lit up like the sun. She appeared happy, content, wholly satisfied with her first day. “Oh and these need your signature.” She extended her arm to pass the letters to him, although their fingers didn’t touch, as he had hoped they might, when he took the small bundle from her.
“Thank you.” He laid them to one side, ready for signing later. Ordinarily he would have dealt with them there and then, but he had another more pressing distraction and he was desperately trying to contrive some way to keep Margaret in the room for a while longer, not quite able to bear the thought of watching her leave.
He had spent the entire day, since depositing her back into the care of Bess, going through the motions of work, endeavouring to concentrate but finding it virtually impossible. He had been so acutely conscious of her being under the same roof that he had had to physically restrain himself from going down to reception in order just to see her. As a consequence of this self-imposed exile he hadn’t really been near her. The only time had been when he’d had to check on something in the little office off reception and then she had been so engrossed in what Bess was telling her about the function buttons on the cash till that she had barely even acknowledged him.
“Sit down and tell me about your day,” he said, using every ounce of persuasive power he could muster. “I’d be interested to know how you’ve found it.”
Very briefly she hesitated before lowering herself into the Chesterton opposite. She glanced about the room, taking in the overt masculinity of it – the bookcases that swept the length of the wall to her left and were crammed with a vast range of reference books which had been collected over time by various members of the family, the old, solid mahogany desk at which he sat with its roughened patches of wear upon its surface, testament to the use it had endured over the years, and the Chesterton upon which she was now sat, and which she absently glided her small fingers over the upholstered black leathered arm of. There were no personal mementos or photographs at all, no indulgence in anything remotely family-orientated. It was a workspace, the place he spent a lot of his time, it was true, but nothing more than that.
“What do you want to know?” she asked as that self-possessed gleam he knew so well flickered into her hazel eyes. Her shift was over; her manner alone relayed to him that she no longer thought of herself as his employee.
“Everything,” he said, just wanting to hear her voice, to let it cascade over him.
Margaret met his eyes, her next words falling like stones upon him. “I would rather know if your sister is all right.”
His eyes narrowed, his mood swinging perilously like a pendulum into the barren misery of the past before he could save himself, threatening to hurl him into another confrontation. His heart constricted as his thoughts harked back to their previous exchange concerning Fran and how uncomfortable it had made him to discuss his family. And yet he had wanted so much to bare his soul to her, to gain some sort of release from the pain he continued to drag around with him every hour of every day. Even as Margaret again offered him that reprieve now, a part of him – that secluded, self-destructive side of his nature that wanted to wallow forever in torment – threw up that impenetrable wall that obliterated any hope of opening himself up to her.
“My sister is fine,” he answered, his response a curt dismissal.
Margaret was undeterred, however. He could tell by the dubiety of her expression that she didn’t believe him. “She didn’t look it just now. She actually looked very unhappy.”
“She’ll sort herself out in time, I’m sure.”
“Did you ever talk to her about her husband?”
He could feel her chipping away at that wall looming so solidly between them, but his need for self-preservation held fast. Speaking about Fran was too acute a reminder of their father and he could never escape the fact that Fran was so very like the man: the same blind faith, the same weakness of character, the same ability to drift along on the waves of superficiality while everything else crumbled into dust around them. He had a fair idea that Margaret must know by now what had happened to his father, but he could not bring himself to ask her and he prayed that she would refrain from asking him.
The blinds drew firmly closed in his eyes so that she would not read the anguish that lingered within them. In his agitation he pulled himself up from his seat and began to pace the room, dogged by restlessness, doing anything but look at her.
“Did you speak to her?” Margaret asked again.
He couldn’t bear it. Fatal, searing, it was one question too many. “I don’t really think it’s any of your business is it?” Rather too savagely he whirled about to face her, his eyes burning starkly with animosity.
“I was only asking!” Immediately she was defensive, irritation, always quick to rear between them, spitting like angry flames from her eyes as her whole body stiffened in defiance.
“Well I’d rather you didn’t!” he retorted, fire clashing with fire across the short space of the desk. “My family’s business has nothing to do with you!”
She was on her feet in seconds, the expression on her lovely face so utterly condemning he almost physically recoiled from it. In silence they glowered at each other across the room, like caged animals hell bent on defending their territory from the other, the air sparking with friction. With a certain irony, John remembered his little speech to her about them both being professional enough not to let their personal issues encroach upon their work. How hollow those words had actually proven to be! She had only asked him a simple question and he’d flown at her with all the vehemence of the despicable wretch she had originally thought him to be!
“I was trying to be polite! Although that’s obviously something you don’t actually understand the concept of!”
She still stood between the Chesterton and his desk, her chin tilted up, her back erect. When she crossed her arms before her it was like a gesture of self-protection. Remorse coursed through his blood to see it, even as his blue eyes flashed with intent. He didn’t know whether to yell at her or take her in his arms and still that wonderfully mobile mouth of hers with all the desperation and passion he held inside.
He turned his back on her, knowing full well that he couldn’t act on the latter. It was her first day for God’s sake! He couldn’t place her in a potentially compromising situation, however much he yearned to do so. He might long for her with more hunger than he ever had a woman before and she might drive him to the point of distraction with her attitude, but he respected her and would suppress his feelings!
He swung his attention back to her as he heard her footsteps scamper hurriedly across the carpet. She was by the door before he knew it.
“Where are you going?” It came out, albeit unintentionally, as a demand, which only served to heighten her rancour further.
“Home! I don’t want to be near you!”
“Margaret –, “he began helplessly, torn apart to see the hatred in her eyes.
“No!” Margaret shot back, her hand grasping the doorknob in readiness for her escape. “I don’t want to know! You’re so damned closed off that you can’t even see when someone is offering you the chance to talk! And, before you accuse me, I wasn’t trying to pry – I was just concerned!”
Her livid narrative duly delivered, she opened the door and not for the first time that day the door to his office was left to bear the tumultuous assault of a woman’s fiery temper.
Margaret came to a halt at the top of the staircase just along the empty corridor from John’s office, mortified to find that there were tears pricking in the corners of her eyes. Tears of extreme anger at his loutish behaviour, tears of realisation that she had fallen in love with a man with whom she would never find any sort of compatibility. In a bid to quell those translucent droplets, she squeezed her index fingers gently against the points they so readily sprung from, drawing in her breath as far as her lungs would allow and then breathing out in a bid to take control again. Only now did she know that she loved him. Only now did she understand just how impossible that love would be to give into. Furtively she glanced around her, greatly relieved to find that she was alone and that the door to John’s office remained firmly closed. She had seen the shock in his eyes as she’d left him, the passing glimmer in an unguarded moment of the vulnerability that he strove so hard to conceal. But that didn’t excuse the way he’d yelled at her. How on earth could they ever have thought they could work together? They couldn’t even manage to get past her first day without arguing, even if it was because she had unconsciously strayed onto a topic so inexorably chained to his personal life! It was impossible – utterly impossible! Just like the love that swelled in her heart and made it bleed bitter tears of self-reproach.
She flinched automatically in response to her name. Why on earth did he have to follow her? She couldn’t even cry in peace without him coming upon her! Rallying every shred of spirit not weighed down by her beleaguered emotions to the fore and blinking away the remains of those telltale tears, she slowly brought herself about to face him. Apart from the two of them it was very quiet; very few people actually appeared to use this staircase at all. The guests had their own main one, of course, which led to every floor and which was broader and more richly decorated and more ornate than this purely functional one with its plain blue carpet and pale, painted blue walls.
“Margaret?” He drew to a standstill close to where she stood leaning against the top of the banisters. His chest was heaving beneath his shirt and she saw that he had completely done away with his tie. He appeared disturbed, his eyes questing her forlorn face with such intensity that she was compelled to look away just to escape the fact that he might be able to read something of her feelings in her expression. “Margaret, look at me.”
She didn’t move. She didn’t dare.
“Margaret,” he implored, hoarsely. “For goodness sake, look at me!”
Her legs felt like marble, too heavy to even allow her the ability to flee down the stairs. Her head spun in confusion. His voice, oh God, his voice! It settled over her with its rich, sensual earthiness, seeking to speak to her very soul of the sensitivity that lay so deeply buried within him. But she couldn’t – wouldn’t – respond to him. She had to stop these feelings that he had awakened in her. She had to, for her own sake, for her own sanity. She couldn’t love a man who locked himself away in the way John Thornton did.
Quite suddenly she realised that his left hand, which had until now been hanging lifelessly at his side, was moving towards her. Its slow, hesitant approach mesmerised her, even as her mind whirled in panic. He was going to touch her! The revelation shot through her a second too late as the very apexes of his fingers rested lightly upon her skin, spanning out against the side of her face between her temple and neck. A sharp pulse of incredible sensation skittered through her at this feather light touch of his fingertips, its magnitude so overwhelming that her heart began to quicken and throb, shaking her to the core. Very gently he applied enough pressure to bring her face up to meet his eyes at last. She expected him to remove his hand but it remained where it was, softly holding her captive. His eyes penetrated hers as he loomed over her.
In those timeless moments she was only conscious of him, of his eyes staring so deeply into hers. Reality faded into obscurity, carrying away with it all her hopes of keeping her distance from him. He took a step nearer, almost closing the slither of distance that lay between them. He was so close she could almost feel the heat radiating from him. Oh God, if he moved forward another step their bodies would collide!
“I’m sorry I shouted at you,” he murmured, his blue eyes searching, piercing hers. “Fran has the ability to aggravate me with very little effort, I’m afraid, but I shouldn’t have taken it out on you.”
“I shouldn’t have pried.”
A faint smile of regret spread across his lips. She found herself transfixed by them, speculating on how it would feel to be kissed by him…
“You will come back tomorrow won’t you?”
“Of course I will!” She looked up at him incredulously. Did he really believe that she would run away at the first hurdle? They may have shouted at each other and she might have thought and still think him impossible, but her job was more important than any catfight. The tempestuous history they had shared before this day, she realised, was never far away; it overrode everything else, binding them in its silken web, even though they may fancy themselves set at liberty from it at times.
His exploratory fingers moved then to glide subtly across her cheek, tentatively roaming with the slightest of touches, as ethereal as gossamer, delicately tracing the contours of the fine bones beneath. “You haven’t changed your mind about working here then?” he asked, quietly.
“I know what sort of man I agreed to work for,” Margaret said, attempting to at least sound totally composed and businesslike, even if she and the situation were anything but.
His eyebrows rose sharply. “Do you?”
The lilt in his voice drew her into its velvet embrace despite her intentions to try and resist. All she longed to do was to lift her arms up and coil them about his strong neck.
Her arms remained glued to her sides. “Yes I do,” she told him clearly, hopelessly striving to ignore the nearness of him because it had the effect of leeching every drop of willpower from her. Her brain yelled at her to get away from him but her heart ached to stay where she was. “I’ll just have to remember to bring my hard hat to work to protect myself in future,” she added, hoping to lighten the tension that swooped about them.
“You don’t need protection from me, Margaret.”
“Don’t I?” she questioned slightly breathlessly. Her whole body trembled with the frenetic vibrations of her heart, her face flaming beneath his fingers.
The sound of voices on the stairs below roused them abruptly, bursting in an instant the incredible bubble in which they had become enveloped. John’s hand fell away from her with all the haste of a thief caught with his hand in the sweet jar, leaving Margaret feeling oddly disorientated, her thoughts spinning incoherently. She turned her head in automatic response to the voices coming closer, even as John did, one of them the unmistakable, strident tones of Mrs Thornton as she addressed what must have been a member of staff about something.
“Walk with me,” John said coolly, his attitude altering into one of guarded professionalism to such an extent that Margaret wondered whether she had actually imagined the last few minutes. Nonetheless, she did as he directed and began to descend the stairs with him, bracing herself for the scorn of Mrs Thornton as they came upon each other.
They all merged on the tiny landing before the final flight of stairs leading to the ground floor. Whoever had been with Hannah not seconds before had gone and she was on her own. She did a double take when she saw Margaret standing demurely beside her son, her thin lips tightening in blatant displeasure.
“I thought your shift had finished,” Hannah remarked, sternly.
“I took some letters up to Mr Thornton to be signed.”
“Hmm.” Hannah glanced across at her son in such a way that hinted that she wasn’t wholly convinced by what Margaret had said and certainly not at all happy with what she surmised. “Where are you going now?”
“Margaret’s just about to go home,” John said before Margaret could reply, obviously deciding to speak for her, even though she could have managed perfectly well herself.
Again that disparaging gaze fell upon Margaret with full, unmitigated censure. If it was an attempt to make Margaret flinch like a coward then it failed to do so. She refused to let the woman browbeat her, as she knew Mrs Thornton did most of the other staff. Besides, she could handle the son – just about – so she could handle the mother.
“Well you’d better get on with it,” she said, archly. “I believe that Bess is waiting for you downstairs.”
From the window of his office John watched Margaret walk along the pavement away from the hotel with Bess. They were deep in conversation, Bess’s face turned to Margaret’s as she said something that made her laugh. He had never really seen Margaret laugh before, never witnessed the way she threw her head slightly back in the abandonment of the moment. He envied Bess the ability to have this effect on her – to share that closeness of friendship that he had never before experienced with anyone. He had tried to tell himself that he would be content with Margaret’s friendship, but he knew deep inside that he would never be able to settle for that. He wanted to love her – for her to love him unequivocally in return in spite of his temper and his faults. She may be a member of staff now, ultimately answerable to him, but he couldn’t pretend that he had not engineered her working for him for anything other than selfish reasons or that he even felt like an employer should. For his own sake and hers, however, he knew that he could not place her in the position he had earlier on the stairs when he’d gone after her to apologise. It wasn’t fair on her and it only served to blur the line between work and personal feeling even further than it already was.
He saw Margaret raise one hand to her hair and release the clip that had held it up all day, shaking her hair out so that it spilt in a radiant shower down her back. He marvelled at the sight of it delicately swishing with the movement of her head, joyously dancing at its newfound freedom. She had no perception of the fact that he was tracing her retreating figure, he was certain of that, and it felt almost furtive to be doing it, to be gazing so intensely down upon her without her knowledge.
He found it difficult to reconcile himself to what had happened between them today; the alternating patterns of formality, anger and the sheer, overwhelming need to be close to her. Her skin had felt like satin against his fingertips when he’d touched her. And, amazingly, she had let him. She hadn’t flinched or shrunk away as he’d feared she might. He hadn’t wanted to let her go and didn’t know what he might have done had he not been roused from the trance she had so magically put him in by the impending approach of his mother. The knowing glint in his mother’s hawk-like eyes had been like a bucket of cold water upon him. Just the way she had assessed Margaret showed him that she was sizing her up and trying to gauge the effect she had upon him. She no doubt wanted to make sure that Margaret was no threat to Ann – which was ridiculous because in his mind there was absolutely no competition. Ann would never have the effect upon him that Margaret did. Ann would never rock him to his very core with her words and her beauty like Margaret did. And he was absolutely certain of the fact that his mother would never realise her dream of welcoming Ann into the family in the way he knew she so hoped.
Breakfast the following morning in the Thornton household was a tense affair with Fran humming some nameless and tuneless song to herself between spoonfuls of muesli, even though her brother, his attention fixed like a magnet on the newspaper at his side, would sigh heavily every now and then as though the noise was some kind of irritant. Hannah sat between them, her gaze falling from one to the other, knowing that something must have passed between them. Neither had spoken to the other since they’d sat down. It was only after Fran went off to her room, her breakfast only half finished, that Hannah sought to question John about what had happened between the two of them.
He glanced up from his newspaper pensively. “We had words yesterday,” he said. “She wanted to know what I’d been saying to you about why she hadn’t gone home yet.”
“I only asked her when she thought the house would be ready,” Hannah replied, confounded by why this might have caused such an adverse reaction in her daughter.
“It seems that it’s a very sensitive issue for Fran,” he said, although he illuminated no further, keeping anything he might know firmly under lock and key.
“But why? You’d think she’d be excited about it being done,” Hannah replied, gathering up the empty plates and Fran’s deserted muesli to carry them through to the kitchen and wash them up before heading off downstairs to keep an eye on the cleaning of the guest rooms.
“Who can tell what goes on in that head of hers?” John said, pushing his chair back and getting up, his thoughts turning to the day ahead and the prospect of being able to see Margaret again. “It’ll be a miracle if any of us ever find out,” he added ironically as he picked up the paper and folded it over deftly. Eyeing his mother, he noticed her despair. “Don’t worry about Fran, Mother. She’ll sort herself out one way or the other.”
And with that he left to start another day.